Or, How to make liberalism a personal value

What prompted this essay was my observations of how people reacted to government recommendations and guidelines on how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. A very substantial number of people seem to explicitly desire exact instructions from the government on how to go about their business and they despair when those instructions are even a little vague.

Liberalism is the name of a political ideology1, which ultimately pertains to the rights and duties of the state and formal power structure. But there is more to liberalism than political form. Liberalism relies on a personal, moral commitment. Without liberal people, wishing to live a liberal life, the liberal political project cannot succeed.

To me, it is self-evident that when a dangerous disease is circulating in the population, everybody has a clear, personal duty to take every reasonable precaution to avoid contracting an infection and to avoid risking passing on infection. I admit to being slightly shocked at realising this is not broadly shared, and that large parts of the country could be confused by the change of the UK government slogan from “Stay home” to “Stay alert”.

I tweeted at the time:

"Stay home" is an extrinsic, hierarchical order. On the face of it, easy to follow, but not really, as the myriad of exceptions show. Even the police took weeks to settle on mostly-non-enforcement as the only feasible implementation. 1/

"Stay alert" on the other hand is intrinsic. As opposed to the ostensibly simpler rule, this one literally has zero exceptions, but it's harder because we have to actually think for ourselves. 2/

The baseline remains "stay at home". But the exceptions are now devolved and no longer enumerated entitlements, individual decisions to be made by considering your specific context and situation and applying reason. 3/

Will it be abused? Sure, but so was the old rule. The difference is that it gives licence to responsible, law-abiding citizen who have a reasonable errand, or even merely a desire they can fulfill responsibly. I.e what renegades were doing anyway. 4/

Hard, simple rules have a time and a place, in narrow, well-understood contexts. Like traffic. But this isn't it. 5/

It's old news in the business world that intrinsic rules enable better outcomes than extrinsic ones in complex scenarios: people closer to the situation has more context and when given freedom, rather than a strict command, make better decisions. 6/

The flip side of this is that it requires a particular culture, one that values good outcomes over strict process, one that doesn't punish a failed good faith effort. The £1m question? Do we have that culture, do we want to have it, can we get it? 7/

Of the People, for the People

Liberals will often worry about the effects of overbearing government policy on personal attitudes towards independent thought, responsibility, and duty, and rightly so. But one of the things that turned me off “hard” libertarianism is the overwhelming focus on government. I believe that as things stand today if we didn’t have an overbearing state, the first thing people would do would be to invent one. It would be smaller at first, but it would grow quickly because there is a deep popular desire to make one’s problems someone else’s. It’s not so much “Rob Peter to pay Paul”, but rather “Rob Peter and Paul, and absolve them of their responsibilities in return”.

I am increasingly convinced that liberal progress does not start with fighting state power, but by figuring out how to make liberalism a personal, moral value.

The thicket of laws, regulations and agencies with vague missions and poor accountability is a product of culture, and lurking just under the surface, that culture is rooted in a specific demand for the eradication of ambiguity. The availability of detailed regulations for everything and nothing erodes personal agency, which further strengthens the demand. At this point, we are through so many iterations of this cycle that causality is meaningless.

This is not solvable in the formal, political arena. It takes enormous amounts of political capital to win even modest victories there, and the feedback to the cycle is weak, so the endeavour becomes Sisyphean. Rather, we need to encourage a sense of duty to engage directly with issues where they occur, and this requires being comfortable with complexity.

Freedom is complexity

Large government in otherwise free societies don’t generally discourage free thought, as sometimes suggested by “hard” libertarians, as much as it discourages complex thought. People desire answers, and government is all too happy to grows in its attempts to provide them. The result is a society full of answers, or at least the expectation of them. On COVID-19, the government fell short; there were no answers to give out. “Stay home” is a clear answer to a question, and this was correct for a while. “Stay alert” is not an answer, it’s a prompt to think complex thoughts, and the reaction to the latter betrays a negative reaction to complexity.

42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything. The joke works because these things are obviously vastly complex, and it was folly to even expect an answer in the first place. This insight has profound impact on modern life that goes beyond a simple joke, but we seem blind to it. Stability and certainty as societal terminal values are both deeply reactionary and unpractical: Government can no more provide and answer to everything than the computer in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy could. Only liberalism provides moral clarity on this question; socialism and conservatism are united in the expectation that this is possible, only disagreeing on how to achieve it.

(End-note: I started drafting this post before the UK face covering mandate was announced. I have some aesthetic sympathy for the liberal knee-jerk of resiting being told what to wear and where by the government, and I would have had a strong preference for a bottom-up emergence of an expectation to wear masks in shops and on public transportation in favour of a top-down mandate. That said, I consider resistance to this particular mandate a pointless waste of effort. Given where we are, as outlined and lamented in this post, it was probably necessary, and frankly as far as laws go, we can and are doing a lot worse than masks.)

  1. In this essay, “liberalism” is used in the European sense to mean “classical liberalism”, not to refer to the US political left.